Sunday, 3 January 2016

I, Cyborg - Umberto Tosi

Here it is the third day of 2016 and I'm still writing 3015 on my checks. Not that anyone writes checks anymore. And not that I've been writing a lot of anything lately. This is me living excessively in the future, imagining worlds for a scifi opus, probably a novel, but perhaps a section of another in progress.

This is supposed to be the gestation period in the creative process. Me of little faith: I get very impatient to get on with it. I should know better, but I only believe in the process when I see the work. Otherwise, it's hard to shake the feeling that I'm screwing around, or worse, that I somehow might be drowning my baby in doubts, compulsive complications and second-guesses.

Research becomes my security blanket – maybe from having been a journalist for so many years. I read everything I can on the subject at hand, old and new. Mastery of details lends authenticity to fiction, as they say. I find myself in a garden of forking paths, digressing endlessly through books and Websites. It's not all grunt work. Ideas and inspiration well up from the material – suggesting plot twists, insights, nuances, characteristics and themes.

Playing with spiritual machines – as I am in this narrative – has taken me into a variety of wooly writings about artificial intelligence, robotics, neurology, plus, tangentially, the philosophy of religions, consciousness and psychology. The light bulb flashes over my head as I come across assumption-breakers. That has me revising draft copies furiously, and hoping that some sort of story line will hold together during liftoff.

These minds have me outclassed. I have to go over passages assiduously, yellow marker and note pad at the ready. And they come at things from entirely disparate, yet resonating conceptual angles – e.g., AI research scientist/divinity professor Anne Foerst's “God in the Machine,” neuroscientist Michael S. A. Graziano's “Consciousness and the Social Brain,” postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard's “Simulacra and Simulation,” and the eye-opening articles of The Cyborg Handbook, edited by Chris Hables Gray, published twenty years ago but still on bleeding edge conceptually.

My characters dwell in that much-storied scifi future inhabited by lots of robots, androids and cyborgs. Spaceships are secondary, as is time travel, among the mobs of memes on this trans-human probability curve. I have to remind myself that the whole trans-human, we-and-machines thing is based on metaphors, useful-but-simplified paradigms and heuristics, like mind-body, software-hardware-wetware-firmware morphisms and plain old figures of speech.

Ghosts of iconic automatons from our literary and cinematic past keep crashing my party. I get lost in the history of these imaginative projections: Karel Čapek's 1921 play, R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) in which the word was coined, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the Golem created by 16th century Prague Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Finnish woman of gold, in the Kaleval myths, Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy, not to mention Terminator, Data and Lore, and CP30, R2D2 and BB-8. And let's not forget Fritz Lang's Metropolis “Maria.” Throw in Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio, who was, after all, can be seen as a proto-robot made of wood with a built in lie detector.
Edward Ellis 1868
"Steam Man"
Čapek's Jazz Age automatons were created (by a demented scientist, of course) who discovered a way to make synthetic flesh, so in a sense they were not robots, as we have come to use the term. Precociously, they were what we now would call cyborgs, that is “cybernetic organisms,” a term coined back in 1960 by neuroscientists Manfred Clynes and Nathan S. Kline. And we think all this stuff is new.

Soon we'll all be cyborgs, if not we're already such transhuman creatures, wrote post-modern feminist anthropologist Donna Haraway in her groundbreaking 1985 essay, “The Cyborg Manifesto.” in which she calls for a reordering of mind-body and gender paradigms. I'm already a cyborg, for one, owing to the artificial lenses implanted in my eyes about six years ago. (Look, ma, no glasses!) Same for folks with artificial joints, even, by her reckoning, immune-enhanced by vaccines. Add in computers, the Internet and cyber-devices we use daily to augment our natural memories, reach and perceptions.

It's no wonder that contemporary scifi leans heavily towards artificial intelligences, either embodied or floating in the cyberspace of supercomptuers. Each era conjures its own automatons, crafted in and energized by era-appropriate means, depending on extant knowledge and world view.

Romanian 1940s diva
Virginia Zeani as
Olympia in Tales of Hoffman
The Talmudic golem was fashioned of clay and brought to life by sacred texts. Edward S. Ellis based his 1868, first-ever scfi dime novel, The Steam Man of the Prairies, on an actually steam powered buggy-pulling human-like automaton built by American inventors Zadoc P. Dederick and Isaac Grass. Hadaly, was a mechanical women run on electricity in “The Future Eve” (1878) a notoriously misogynist novel by French symbolist writer Jean Comte de Villiers. (The novel that popularized the term. “android,” by the way. Comte de Villiers' “perfect woman” automaton would now probably be called a gynoid, as would Olympia the beauteous mechanical ballerina who captivates the besotted protagonist of E. T. A. Hoffmann's Der Sandmann (1814), and piquantly portrayed in Offenbach's opera comique, Tales of Hoffman. And Masamune Shirow's brilliant “Ghost in the Shell” film and manga series posits a hyper-intelligent super-heroine android who can manifest in both in cyberspace and solidity.

I grew up on pulp science fiction of the 1940s and 50s, little knowing that I was devouring much of the canon that fans would later call the golden age of scifi. Astounding, Fantastic, Amazing and other science fiction journals of the time.

Scifi pulp regulars included Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clark, Philip K. Dick, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, Issac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, A.E. van Vogt, Lester del Rey and David R. Bunch.

1944 Pulp scifi issue
with Ray Bradbury cover story
I had no idea that these were to be hailed as the giants of a classical “golden age” of science fiction literature. I just read them as fantastic storytellers with startling imaginations. Unlike the crude offerings of first-run monster/space-invader movies of the time, they challenged all the assumptions of the world in which I was growing up. Not that many years later, I was lucky enough to actually meet and work briefly with Ray Bradbury during my first major editing stint with the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine in the late 1960s, to which he contributed short stories regularly. Still later, as editor of a San Francisco East Bay magazine, I got to interview a wizened, retired Frederik Pohl – another one the memorable Analog Science Fiction pulp writers, prolific author of “The Coming of the Quantum Cats” series.

My literary tastes broadened and moved away from classic science fiction into fusions of fantasy, speculative political, punk and post-punk, poetic and magical realism during the succeeding decades. But the scifi flame still burned – from classics by H.G. Wells and Arthur C. Clark, towards the ironic, edgy speculative and fantastical works of Philip K. Dick, Huxley, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Attwood, Haruki Murakami, and more recently, Marge Piercy.

Of course, the mantle of scifi extends far beyond the traditional space operas I used to read, crossing over into every realm. It's high- and low-brow, mainstream and esoteric. It's graphic novels, manga, Internet fan fiction videos and the high-concept-CGI-aided futuristic wide-screen extravaganzas of 2015 – with major social shifts that had little to do with post-apocalyptic scenarios or hyperdrives. Women heroes took center stage in the new Star Wars VII - the Force Awakens and Mad Max: Fury Road. Same goes for scifi TV hits like Halle Berry's scientist-space traveler in Extant and Krysten Ritter noir superhero in Marvel's Jessica Jones. In that respect, scifi has come a long way from the male-centered worlds of the so-called "golden age" in which I grew up. 

Ms. Berry hugs android son in "Extant"
The future seldom is all it's cracked up to be. Changes come inexorably, but rarely along the lines we expect. The cultural shifts are underestimated as the technological and scientific are oversold. Back when I was reading those pulp science fiction magazines most people believed we would have colonized the moon and Mars by now and had robotic butlers.

Take, for example, my high school buddy Bob Simmons, a beanpole with whom I played on the Hollywood High School junior varsity basketball team. We used to cut school as often as we could get away with it. Bob liked to go around puffing Camels, letting them hang off his lips in ways we though very cool. This was 1957 when the Surgeon General and U.S. Public Health Service first concluded that smoking's link to lung cancer. I remember a gym coach who caught us puffing behind the high school football grandstand asking Bob: “Hey kid, aren't you afraid you'll get cancer?”

Bob, always nonchalant in his Elvis leather jacket, collar turned up, responded: “Nah! It takes 30 or 40 years of smoking to get cancer. By that time they'll have a cure.”

Yes. We have smart phones and have made great advances in computing, communications and myriad other fields. But cancer treatments still haven't advanced much beyond the draconian methods of the 1950s. Only the instruments are more sophisticated. Overall cancer death rates haven't diminished much. Still no passenger shuttles to nightclubs on Ceres either. As Anne Foerst observed, wisely, “We have built a computer that can defeat the world champion at chess, but can't build a robot that can butter a slice of bread.”

The technological leaps of the 21st century are impressive, but the greatest challenges of today remain human – social, political and economic – not technological. Science has given us viable solutions to most of our greatest threats. We have practical economically elegant, real-tech solutions of many of our greatest scourges and threats, including world hunger, malaria, the need for sustainable renewable energy and curbing climate change. But but we let vested interests and ideological pigheadedness stand in our way.

I have no idea where my current scifi narrative will take me, but it has developed enough now so that the characters start to have lives of their own out there in futureworld. They're starting to talk back. I can see the vague outlines of something that makes my writing self tingle, if only I can reach it.

I'm intrigued by the ideas – put forth by Foerst, Haraway and other postmodern thinkers that our machines are extensions of ourselves – questioning the Terminator model of machine-man wars that has been dominant in scifi for a long while. While these cautionary tales had their place, another truth is that we to build sentient machines to find company in the universe, just as we look for extraterrestrials. Humans are lonely. Foerst goes further, to assert that our attempts at making conscious robots are essential to self-understanding. In a biblical sense, she characterizes the development of humanoids as a way of “trying to understand God more.” As creatures “made in God's image” making robots in our own image becomes a ritual aimed at comprehending the universe and the divine.

My inamorata, Eleanor and I were binge-watching the newest video adaptation of Philip K. Dick's Man in the High Castle, which takes place in an alternative time line where the Nazis and Imperial Japan won World War II and occupy North America. This led us to a lively discussion of our own childhood memories of World War II and post war era.

One of the characters – a Japanese emissary who turns out to be a good guy – consults the I Ching with regularity, an evocative symbol for alternative realities and probability curves. I used to consult the ancient hexagrams a bit myself, at least in translation. The approach of a new year made its predictive modeling seem apropos. I'd lost my old, I Ching volume and coins some time ago. But this being the 21st century, we found The I Ching Online, an informative Website that contains an app to randomly throw the traditional coins (not very meditative unless you make it so.) We decided, what the hell, to give the virtual coins a toss. The I Ching, of course, is not a magic 8-ball. I don't pretend to be an expert, but I don't think the ancient metaphoric Taoist texts won't help me pick a horse at the track. Best ask it open ended questions. I meditated a moment on my scifi work-in-progress and clicked on the virtual coin-toss button. .

Hexagram 64
Wei Chi
The response surprised me. I'm not much of a believer in the mystic, but it's always close by. I got hexagram 64 – the last one: “Fire Over Water: Wei Chi / Before Completion.” As it says, Wei Chi relates to that short period of time that precedes success. (That sounded like good news.) When victory is in sight it is easy to take it for granted and not hurry the process, as I am wont to do. A fox crossing a river must keep its tail high and not let it dip into the water and get soaked in premature anticipation of reaching the opposite bank. In other words, as I interpreted it, the hexagram spirits seemed to be telling me to cool it, stay focused– at least creatively – and don't try to rush the process. Don't let myself be distracted by the usual static. I found it reassuring, and a good new year's resolution. So, here it is, 2016 – or maybe 3016 – and I'm still at it.
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Umberto Tosi is author of Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review, where he is a contributing editor.


4 comments:

Susan Price said...

A great read, Umberto - and keep cool, keep going, reach that further bank with your tail held high and dry. We want to read the book!

And - gasp! You worked with Ray Bradbury. We faint in coils...

Kara said...

Awesome read! Very interesting and witty! Up lifting as well! I believe the hope and magic of the future is in full swing by such creative thoughts and ideas explored by optimistic minds such as your own. Full steam ahead as you continue to investigate, imagine and explore possibilities in your remarkable journey!

Lydia Bennet said...

Erudite and fascinating as ever, Umberto! I think there is much to be done in sci-fi - when reading the older books, I'm struck more by how unimaginative they are rather than the 'what if?' clever bits - how often, for example, their imagined futures feature women who are still 1950s housewives, when that's not even logical in the worlds they imagine. The hardest part is not imagining a huge leap of technology but in escaping one's own culture to imagine other possible cultures. Good luck with your cyborg characters! Robot just means 'worker' as you know, yet human labour world-wide hasn't been much threatened by robots as yet, even while we now try to create more intelligent ones.

Umberto Tosi said...

Thanks to all. You're right Lydia. I agree that science fiction writers have been more successful imagining fantastic technological and scientific changes, while neglecting logical cultural evolution (or devolution.) Exceptions include Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale." (cultural devolution), more recently, Marge Piercy and the works of Ursala LeGuin.) SciFi was a boy's world, pretty much, back in the 1940s-50s and in that way, not really a "golden age," just one that produced some classic works. Thanks for the comments. Happy new year!